John by Mrs. Margaret Oliphant
"Djohn, Djohn!" cried the boy, "come back: the mother is looking for
you—something has happened. At once, at once, you must go home!"
"What has happened? Is she ill? Has she hurt herself? Has there been an
accident?" demanded John, a tall lad of sixteen, dressed, like the first
speaker, in country clothes of French cut, but with a certain difference
which marked his different nationality.
"There has been an accident, but not to her. Make haste! It is very
exciting. It is a gentleman that is hurt, and he is your father. Half
the village is at the door. So go, quick, quick! I have run before them
all to tell you."
"A gentleman who is my father! My father is dead years ago," said the
elder boy, with a flush on his face.
"Nevertheless it is quite true what I say. Come quick, come quick! I am
going back: something new may have happened even since I came away."
With that the little French villager rattled off on his noisy shoes,
full of excitement, down the stony street towards the railway station,
calling to some other youths, as he passed, also to come quick, for that
something tremendous had happened chez l'Anglaise. That little group
clattered after him, all agog in a moment with the precious thought of
some distraction; for few things ever happened in these regions. But the
person most concerned hung back. He had never been out of this village
in his life—he knew no other mode of existence; yet when Jean called
to John that his home was the scene of a mysterious catastrophe, John
held back with a proud shame and horror which could not endure
publicity. Perhaps his slowness of brain took a moment more to fathom
the mere fact of a catastrophe; but in reality his heart was already
beating loudly in his breast, and his head beginning to buzz and swell,
while still he kept up the fiction of walking deliberately and yielding
to no excitement. What was it that had happened? Nothing had happened in
all John's life but what happened every day. He had been born and lived
always in that little town of Cagnes. He was the son of l'Anglaise,
and, as a matter of fact, though he had been brought up just like them,
he was not the same as the other boys. There was something in him
different: he was slower than they were, more deliberate, more calm. He
did not quarrel as they did, noisily, with shrieks, and sometimes tears;
but he was more dangerous than the rest when his composure was really
disturbed. His mother was a very shrinking, quiet woman, who lived in a
small house with a big garden on the lower slope of the hill. She was
one who said little to anybody, even to her son whom she adored; but she
was a very useful person in her quiet way, and though she was English,
and silent, and a stranger, was rather popular than otherwise in Cagnes.
Everybody knew l'Anglaise, who was a feature in the small community,
not like anybody else. People who knew her well called her Madame
Jeanne. She had arrived there quite by accident in the first grief of
her widowhood, with a pathetic story, as was commonly told and reported.
She had gone to meet her husband, a sailor, at Marseilles; but instead
of finding him had received the news of his death—and being very
lonely, had strayed on distracted until she saw the little town of
Cagnes rising upon its hill above the prosaic line of the railway, and
all the green and lovely country round. She had stopped there at hazard,
in the sickness of her heart; and there her son had been born, and she
had lived ever since. I am not aware that any one had heard this story
from her own lips. Certainly John had never heard it; but he understood
somehow, as everybody else did in Cagnes, that this was his mother's
story. So many things there are in the world which have come into the
common mind somehow, exist by some vitality of their own, and do not
need to be re-told. John would have gone to the stake for it, and so
would half the population of Cagnes, that his father was a sailor and
died before he was born. What, then, did this ridiculous little Jean,
Jean au Meunier, the miller's son, mean by his ridiculous story? John
would not follow down the steep and stony street, where every step made
such a noise on the flags, as if he were moved by that absurd tale. But
presently he dived down one of the side lanes which led down the slope
of the hill, almost perpendicularly between two lines of houses, until
you came to the broken slopes farther down, where you could zigzag your
way among the prickly aloe bushes, and the terraces of the olive
gardens. His mother's cottage lay at the foot of the hill, with its
large, sloping, sunny garden, in which the trees in blossom, peach and
apple, stood out against the grey background of the olives, and the last
of the winter oranges made a show for more than they were worth upon the
darker green of the trees. John's heart beat very loud indeed as he
tumbled down these steps, slipping and springing in his haste; but he
was half-disappointed, half-relieved, to find no crowd, no commotion
about the house. The door was locked as usual, and the key hid under the
great white bank of marguerites, as it always was when his mother had
gone out. There was not a sign about of anything but the ordinary calm.
Some one, however, called to him from the road, as he stood, not knowing
what to do next, in front of the gate.
"Hé, le Djohn!" cried this passer-by, "thy mother is not here. You will
find her at the Hôtel de la Gare, with the gentleman who is dying, or
like to die."
"What gentleman?" cried John, striding over the broken ground towards
"Do I know? Some one who came in search of her and thee. It is thought
thy real father. But why ask me? Go and see for thyself!"
John paused a little till this man had passed, disappearing into the
valley. He would not allow a mere peasant, a clodhopper, to see the
commotion in which his mind was; but as soon as the passer-by was out of
sight he took to his heels and ran all the way, which was more than a
mile, through the opening of the valley to the white Route Nationale
which ran along the coast, on the other side of which was the little new
station and a half-built house, emblazoned with the ambitious title of
Hôtel de la Gare, in the meantime not much more than a café, where the
Cagnois went on Sundays to drink their bocks and breathe the dust they
love. Here, sure enough, there was a crowd at the door, and many signs
of excitement—the men standing about and describing something to each
other, two railway porters surrounded by the closest group, and the
women all pressing up the steps, shaking their heads and asking
questions of the proprietor, who stood blocking up the doorway. John
had run as only a boy can all the way until he came in sight of this
little throng; then he altered his aspect, slowed down by degrees,
thrust his hands into his pockets, and came the rest of the way in slow
marching time, as if he were going along for his proper diversion, and
had nothing on his mind. There was a great outcry, however, before he
reached the spot, and he saw his mother led out into the balcony and
placed there in a chair, apparently fainting, one woman sprinkling water
upon her head, another fanning her, two or three hanging about wringing
their hands. When John saw this he made a sudden forward movement, and
forced his way through the crowd, which, as soon as it was seen who he
was, gave way before him.
"It is her boy—let him go to her. Djohn, God bless thee! be good to thy
poor mother. Let him go in, let him go in, Père Rondilet—it is her
But, notwithstanding these encouragements and the readiness of everybody
to help him, it was not so easy for John to attain to his mother. There
were two rooms which opened upon that balcony, the doors of both of
which were shut and guarded, one by a spare, trim, English-looking man,
the other by one of the women who knew Madame Jeanne, and who now took
John's head in her two hands, kissed him, leaving a tear on his cheek,
and begged him to have patience a little.
"Thy mother has had a great shock," she said. "She has an attack of the
nerves—how could it be otherwise after such a discovery? Wait a little
till she comes to herself, my little friend." "Little friend" does not
mean anything so soft and tender in English as mon petit ami did; but
we must take the faults of our language along with its qualities.
"What does it mean?" cried John. "What lies are they all saying about my
father? My father was dead before I was born."
"I beg pardon," said the English-looking man, in very slow and difficult
French; "is this the English lady's son?"
John answered abruptly in English, perhaps even a little rudely. "Who
are you?" He was very much irritated and troubled, poor boy. He divined
a certain inferiority in the man, and the horrible question, Was this
perhaps his father? crossed his mind.
"I am Mr Rothbury's servant—I may say his confidential man; and I know
everything," was the strange reply.
The good woman who had just spoken to John stood open-mouthed with
admiration to hear the boy whom she had known all her life thus express
himself in a foreign tongue with an aplomb which was extraordinary, and
which the strange gentleman quite a gentleman in the opinion of Mère
Pointêt, understood and replied to with so much deference. Decidedly
John, who had been brought up among them all, and considered just as one
of the other boys, had more in him than anybody thought.
"What do you mean by everything?" said John. "And who is Mr Rothbury? I
don't suppose there is anything to know."
"This is not a place to explain, if you are not acquainted with the
circumstances, sir," the English valet said.
John was not at all accustomed to be spoken to in this tone; and though
it was meant to be very respectful, it seemed to him something like
mockery. He grew very red with the idea that he was being laughed at.
"Perhaps you mistake me for some one else," he said. "I can speak
English because my mother is English—that is all; and I won't stand
being made fun of, I can tell you. Though you are," he added after a
moment with reluctant candour, "a great deal bigger than me."
"I am not making fun of you, sir. I am your father's valet; it wouldn't
become me, especially with him, poor gentleman, lying dead on the other
side of the door."
A kind of horror seized upon John. He had never, that he knew of, been
so near to any one who was dead. He drew back a step, with the timidity
that is born of awe.
"Would you like to see him, sir?" the valet said.
"What does he say?" said the Mère Pointêt. "It is just: you ought to go
and see him, you who belong to him. Thy mother is too much agitated—it
would kill her to remain there; but thou, boy, go—it is only right,
since the man is thy father, whatever he may have been in his life."
"I have no father—my father died long ago," the boy cried.
But presently, without wishing it, he found himself in the room which
the valet unlocked to admit him. A man lay on the bed in his ordinary
clothes—the clothes in which he had travelled. Nothing as yet had been
done of those last offices which are performed for the dead. The windows
which opened on the balcony were half-closed with shutters, but open
enough to let the sounds without come in; the room was, if not "the
worst inn's worst room," at all events the bare, newly-plastered,
half-furnished room of a poor railway hotel. There were no curtains, no
veil of any kind to conceal the terrible fact of that big figure lying
there, in all the dreadful ordinariness of a tweed travelling suit, and
boots upon which the dust of the road still lay.
"You must not think it was the shock alone," the valet said, moving on
tiptoe, and speaking in a whisper. "It was a great shock, of course; but
it happened yesterday. My master saw Mrs Rothbury standing on the
platform at the station as the train went by. Shows how much he had
thought of her, doesn't it, sir, that just a glimpse like that as we
went by was enough, after all these years? To be sure, the train slowed
as we went through the stations. I saw the lady too, and I believe it
was you, sir, along with her; but then I had never seen my poor master's
wife. And he didn't know anything about you, if you'll excuse me saying
it. He would have come back here last night if he hadn't been taken so
bad. He's been ill a long time, my poor master has—gout and many other
things. But when he saw you, sir, there was no holding him. 'Struthers,'
said he (my name is Struthers, sir)—'there's a child, she's got a
child—and a boy too: what I've always wished for was a boy.' The doctor
had to let him come this morning,—he wouldn't be kept back; but he said
to me, the doctor did, 'It's as much as his life is worth.' Family
quarrels are dreadful things. I don't want to say a word against your
mother, sir. She had her reasons, no doubt of it; but my poor master
might have been a better man as well as a happier if——It's not for a
servant to make remarks. Come a little nearer this way."
"I don't want to see him," said John, trembling. "I don't know who he
is. I don't wish to hear anything more about him."
"He is your father, sir," said the valet, reproachfully; and John stood
still with a strange fascination, yet repugnance, while the man withdrew
the handkerchief which covered the face. The boy trembled from head to
foot at the sight. It was a face in which there was little of the
dignity and solemnity that so often comes even upon the homeliest faces
when death has touched them—a large heavy countenance with bloated
features, and eyes half-closed, with something of a stare in them under
the light-coloured, scanty eyelashes. It was impossible to believe that
the man was dead. The redness natural to it had hardly departed from the
coarse face; a few limp locks of hair, laid over in life to hide the
baldness, straggled now about the swollen temples—not a face to be
remembered as that of a boy's father. John stumbled away, covering his
face with his hands. What did it mean? His father?—but he had had no
father since ever he was born.
Presently he was told that his mother was better—that she wanted him to
take her home; but she did not say anything to him when he went into the
next room where she was. She had her little black bonnet on, which
always made so great a difference between her and the village women in
their white caps, and which John had been unconsciously proud of, as a
sign that she was not as they were, but an English lady such as he had
read of in books. Her face was covered with a thick veil, and she took
hold of his boyish arm with a sort of clutch, holding it against his,
and almost resting her head upon his shoulder, for she was a little
woman, and he was taller already than she was. In this way he led her
through the crowd at the door, feeling the importance of it, even though
he felt his heart turned from his mother in the shock of this discovery.
She had deceived him in some dreadful way, he scarcely as yet knew how;
but, at all events, he was her protector now, her defence against all
these prying people. He held her up with his arm, and he made signs to
them with his disengaged hand not to press upon her, not to speak to
her. He was her protector, that was certain,—even though he might be
angry with her, it was his business to take care of her, and not that of
any other person in the world. They went along together, she always
holding fast by his arm, her head bowed, her face hidden by her veil,
along the white line of the Route Nationale, where scattered groups
stood about every house, though thinning as they went on, and stared at
her and him—until they turned into the valley road and the slopes of
broken ground, beyond which the cottage lay. It was only when they were
there, and no one within sight or hearing, that she spoke.
"Oh, John, you are angry with me," she said.
"How can I be angry with you? But you have deceived me, mother," said
"I have never deceived you—nor any one. All that—that was said of me,
that I suppose you have heard—was not from me, John. I said nothing at
all. I meant always when you were older to tell you, but I never thought
you seemed to care."
"Not care!" he said.
He could not have told her even now the pang which was hot in his heart
for the loss of his sailor father, the young father of whom he had
dreamed so often, who had been coming home so joyfully to his wife and
child, and whom death had seized in the middle of his happiness. He had
thought of him so often, imaging him forth to himself, that it almost
seemed to John as if he could have painted a picture of the young man
sweeping the horizon to be the first to see land—that land which he was
never to see. He meant to paint a picture of it one day, which should
move every heart. He had almost heard the swish of the waves along the
vessel's side, the sound of the wind in the sails, and seen the wistful
look in that face,—which now he was to learn had never existed, never
looked out for land, never borne that disappointment which had wrung his
son's heart for him so many, many times. It was with a visionary anguish
that the boy realised all this. "Not care!" What was there that he had
cared for more? Scarcely even this mother, bowed down with trouble, who
clung to his arm. The mother, though he loved her, was still a mortal
and fallible: little questions rose between them: she came to decisions
which were not always just according to John's way of thinking, and said
things that jarred upon him. But the father was beyond all that. He was
the true ideal, without fault, full of unknown treasures of tenderness
and wisdom. It would have astonished that mother beyond measure, she who
thought she knew her son so well and possessed all his affection, to
know how much closer still that vision was to John's heart.
"You never said a word," she cried now, with a vague pang; "you never
asked a question. How was I to know? But I meant always to tell you when
you should be older. Oh, John! I know now that I was very rash and
imprudent; but then I did not think of that, I was so young, and life
was very hard upon me. I was disposed of just as they pleased. I was
more unhappy than any one can ever know. And I have never regretted it
till now. I have lived a life of peace with my own child. I have been
quite happy—I who was so wretched, John."
"I wish you would tell me how it all happened," he said, almost coldly.
He turned his head away from her. He gave her still the support of his
arm—so much support as was in it, for it began to tremble in her close
pressure and even with her slight weight. He was so young, such a child,
to encounter such a sudden tempest of feeling; but he did not in any way
return the mute caress with which from time to time she pressed that
boyish arm. It is seldom, perhaps, that a mother is to a child as she
thinks she is; but she consoled herself that he was angry, and had
perhaps some right to be angry now; and she waited until they had
reached the house—the little home full of all the associations of his
life—before she told him her tale.
She had married—or rather had been married with very little
consultation of her own wishes—an inexperienced girl, overcoming her
own repugnances (of which, indeed, how could a mother speak to her boy?)
in the belief that she was loved for the first time in her life; for she
had no parents, no brothers or sisters, nobody to give her any
affection. She had, however, found, even in the first fortnight of her
married life, that the love which she longed for was as far from her as
ever. An accident, the most foolish and purposeless—the husband getting
out of a railway carriage and being left behind as the train went
on—had left her, troubled, miserable, alone, with a whole day to think
over her fate. And in that moment, in her girlish rashness, she had
decided it. She had escaped, leaving no clue. Chance had brought her to
Cagnes, the little smiling, ancient town on its hill, which had pleased
her fancy. It was a place where no one was likely to look for the little
runaway English bride; and though she had no doubt that pursuit had been
made, she had never been disturbed by any inquiries—never till the day
before, when, standing accidentally in the little railway-station with
John, as he must remember, she had seen her husband's face look out, and
knew that she was recognised. Then she had known what would happen. She
had hung about the station all day to see if he came back. And he did
come back, but so ill, and in such a tempest of passion, that it had
been fatal to him.
She told her tale very quietly, shedding a few tears; and she said at
the end, "I do not know if it was wrong: it was breaking my
marriage-vow; but I did not know when I made that vow what I was binding
myself to—nor how unbearable it would be. And I have never, never
regretted—oh, John! never till to-day."
"And why do you regret it to-day?" asked the boy, harshly; "because you
have been found out, or because he has died?"
"Oh, John! oh, John!" cried the poor woman, covering her face with her
Perhaps he was not so kind as he ought to have been to his mother. At
sixteen how can it be expected that a boy could enter into a woman's
feelings and put himself in her place? It seemed utterly wild to
him—without reason, without sense, a defiance of all laws. What a thing
to do! to fling off the people who belonged to you, whoever they were,
because they had made a mistake about a railway train!
After her story was told, there was not very much conversation between
the mother and son. He went and worked in the garden a little with great
energy: which was John's chief work, for the garden formed a great part
of their living,—what with the flowers, which were sent into the Nice
market, and vegetables, which were the staple of their own food. And
then suddenly he threw down his spade and went out, feeling that he
could think it all over better if he were out of reach of any call upon
him. He went up the valley, which was so green and sweet—the valley
where farther up the violets are grown in furrows like corn, filling the
air with sweetness, though they have no higher destination than the
greasy boilers of Grasse. John clambered up one side of the hills to a
favourite spot among the trees, whence he could see all the wide
landscape stretching out before him—the soft sea, in all its shimmering
tints of blue, and the long cape of Antibes stretching far out into the
water. There were not many of his comrades who cared at all for the
view; but it was inarticulately dear to John, who never said anything
about it, but climbed to that mount of vision in all his perplexities,
to take counsel of the boundless horizon and the long-stretching lines
of the hills. But to-night it made his heart sick to look out upon that
vast panorama of sea and sky, one more blue than the other, crossed by
soft whitenesses of cloud and shadow, and looking like one quarter, at
least, of the great globe. How often had he gazed out over it, and
thought of his sailor father nearing home! Oh, the fine vision of that
hope unfulfilled, that life so full of gentle wishes long subdued, of
longing love and expectation, and almost certainty of happiness to come!
And now he was told that it had never been. This it was which filled him
with the very rage of grief and loss. Hot tears like fire filled his
eyes. No father, no sailor coming out of the unknown, with light in his
face to bless the memory of his child!—no father at all, except that
horrible figure at the hotel, the swollen and bloated face, the dead
glare under the eyelashes, the ignoble countenance. John was French
enough to fling himself down on the hillside, amid the bushes of cistus,
and dig his hands into the soil in a paroxysm of pain and misery, though
he was also English enough to be ashamed of this frenzy, and to pick
himself up and do his best to subdue it. Must he give it up for ever,
that vision which had accompanied him during almost all his conscious
life? She said it had never come from her—she had not deceived him; and
perhaps it was true, though he was quite unconscious that he had never
betrayed to her that fancy and longing of his heart; but, at least, she
must have known what the neighbours said—the story that some one must
have invented, but which every one held as the truth, and he most of
all. John wondered whether if he had ever betrayed that ideal she would
have let him know that it was an illusion, and that his real father was
very different. He doubted very much if she would have done so, or if he
would ever have known the truth at all, except for the catastrophe of
to-day; and with this thought a chill doubt of his mother and of
everything in earth and heaven came into the boy's heart. Who would ever
tell him the truth if she did not? and was he sure that he knew
everything now, and that it might not change again, like a dissolving
view? The foundations of the world were shaken, and he was not sure that
at any moment the earth might not yawn and a gulf open before his very
The day was darkening when he came down again from the hill. Lights were
twinkling all round the horizon: the steady light on the point of
Antibes, the little revolving one on the pierhead of that little town,
which he had always been so fond of watching as it went and came; and in
the distance, towards the east, the light of the Cap Fêrat standing out
into the sea; and the little glimmer of the household lamps of Cagnes
mounting in steps upon the hillside; and below a little flame from the
railway and the cafés that surrounded it. When he turned his eyes from
the sea, it was the latter that attracted John with a sort of sinister
fascination. It flared out vulgarly, coarsely, into the night, so unlike
the charm of those beneficent, calm lights held up on every side to
guide the travellers at sea; but it drew his feet unwillingly towards
the place where that horrible event had occurred which had changed all
John's life for him. His father—not the father who slept under that
silent shining of the Mediterranean, a father who had never been, except
in the boy's dreaming soul, but whom he could not part with, who was a
portion of himself—but the other, the dreadful reality, lying in the
bare white room yonder, uncovered, in the clothes which seemed to make
that reality more horrible still—was he still lying there as before,
like a wreck, like something cast up by a wave, lying straight out, the
head lower than the feet, in that awful way? John shuddered; but he was
drawn, he knew not how, to the place, and stood in the dark opposite for
a moment, looking at the glaring light and the men who sat at the round
tables in front of the café, talking loud and all together. They had
discussed the event till it was exhausted, and all the new lights it
threw on l'Anglaise, Madame Jeanne; but now they had returned to their
natural topics, and were as noisy as ever, quite unmoved by any
recollection of that lump of ended being which lay up-stairs. He stood
and watched, with a strange throb of horror and rebellion against that
thing to which it appeared he owed his life, and at the same time with a
sense of grievance in the carelessness of the men who paid no respect to
it. As he stood there, the half-closed shutters were softly opened in
that room, and a shadowy figure came out upon the balcony. John knew by
the white cap that it was a Sister.
"Pour l'amour de Dieu taisez-vous, mes amis," said a soft voice,
audible in the interval of the clamour below.
There were faint lights in the room into which she went silently back.
Charity was watching over him, then,—watching and praying. John went
away home very quietly, overawed, and saying nothing even to himself.
He was too late for supper, which was arranged on the table, though
untouched; but he had no mild reproach to encounter, as he would have
had in an ordinary case. His mother was seated at a little table, with a
piece of paper and a pencil in her hand, writing, and then pausing to
count her words and strike out now one, now another. She was saying over
those words to herself aloud as he came in, and only looked up at him,
not saying anything to him, continuing her task.
"Beg you to come to guard my son's interests. Beg you come, for boy's
sake. Beg come——" She went on, withdrawing or changing a word every
"What is it, mother?" said John. These were almost the first words he
had addressed to her since he had heard her story.
"I am writing a telegram. It will cost a great deal to go to England; I
am trying to put it in as few words as possible."
"May I see it, mother?"
How happy it is to have a subject, something to discuss which is not the
one absorbing thing, at the time of a great crisis! The two came
together once more over this paper which had to be written so carefully.
There was very little money in the house. Indeed they did not live much
on money, these two people, but on their garden, and by simple ways of
barter, with the smallest possible dependence on any currency; and to
have to pay so many francs at the post office for a telegram struck them
with dismay. In this point Madame Jeanne, who had lived for one part of
her life in a country and class given to telegrams, was more at her
ease than John, to whom it seemed incredible that as much as five
francs, or even more, could be given for a mere message—a thing that
was nothing, and benefited nobody. He asked her a great many questions
on the subject.
"Who is this?" he said; "and why do you want him to come here?"
"He is my guardian, John."
"Your guardian? But he does not seem to have taken much care of you,
"He did, as far as he knew. He thought that to marry me to some one
who—would take care of me—was the best."
"But then he did not choose well—or else——"
"I was to blame, John. I don't want to clear myself. I was young, and I
thought only of the moment and not of what was to follow. I didn't even
know," she said, dropping her head abashed before her boy, "that God was
going to send me a—child to comfort me. Oh!" she cried, taking his hand
suddenly, "I am not sorry! I am not sorry, though I am to blame. How do
I know how you would have been brought up? And we have lived very
happily; and you are a good boy, a good boy, my own John——"
He let her cry upon his shoulder, but he did not know what answer to
make. He could not yet forgive her the loss of his father—the sailor
who had never come home. But his voice was more gentle as he said,
"Mother, if it is to be sent to-night, I must run to post with it now."
The telegram was made up at last. It was not written in telegramese, and
it cost more money than it ought. The reader will see how many words
might have been spared. It was addressed to C. Courthill, Esq.,
Grosvenor Square, London.
"You will have heard I am here and my husband dead. Have been
living here all time. Beg you come take care of my boy.—Jane."
He ran with it all the way, counting the francs in his hand—eight
francs, enough to have bought a great many things. He grudged the money
very much, wondering why there should be so much haste, and if a letter
would not have done as well, which would have cost twenty-five centimes
and no more. But there are some things in which even a big boy must give
in to his mother, especially when all the francs are hers. He returned
more slowly, thinking this time more than he would have acknowledged of
And thus the day that had made such a change in his life, and indeed
made far more changes than he had the least idea of, came at last to an
In the morning he said more cheerfully, "Don't be so discouraged, little
mother. When the funeral is over and those people have come and gone, we
shall forget everything, and things will go on just as before."
Madame Jeanne shook her head; but she was thankful for the softening in
her boy's tone, and said no more.
He thought a great deal during the interval that elapsed before the
arrival of the people who had been summoned from England and the formal
funeral which followed immediately. It was not that there was any
connection between this event, so far as he realised it, and the
development of his own life. But a touch of fiery stimulation had been
given to his mind, and his thoughts flew beyond this very unpleasant,
but, so far as he was aware, inoperative catastrophe, to the real matter
which was of importance, which was, what was going to be done with him?
He was not so submissive as a French boy. Something of the English
breeding his mother had given him, and the English books he had read,
had given independence to his thoughts. He had made up his mind not to
settle down, half-peasant, half-villager, to the lowly life of the
country, to grow vegetables for his own nourishment and flowers for the
market at Nice. He wanted to go away from Cagnes—to go to Paris,
perhaps even to London, and study art. Since ever lie had known himself,
he had loved a pencil beyond any other toy. He had scribbled upon
stones, upon palings, upon doors, upon every wall that came in his way,
since ever he could remember. The consequence was, that he had got as
far unaided as a kind of caricature—perhaps the first step, as it is
the easiest. He made sketches of the country-folk, which were very
amusing to their neighbours, getting a kind of flying likeness with a
burlesque touch, with the end that everybody was delighted by all the
portraits in his picture-gallery except their own. His ardent desire was
to go to Paris to perfect himself in his art, to become a great painter,
and to send home a great deal of money to his mother. Perhaps he did not
think very much of the lonely life she would lead, of the change it
would make to her; but he did think of acquiring a very handsome house,
perhaps the chateau which was on the very top of the hill, and commanded
all the views—on the one side the sea, with Antibes on its promontory,
and on the other the mountains and the valley, the great Rocher of St
Jeannet, which cleaves the lines of little hills asunder, and the snow
of the Maritime Alps behind. What backgrounds he would get for his
pictures in that beautiful country! He would come back from Paris and
the studios as soon as he was rich enough, and live there in the lovely
spring, and study and make sketches, and live the old life which made
his mother happy. Yes, he would take up that life again, and she would
be as happy as ever, if she had only the patience to wait. But after
this great disturbance John did not feel as if he could settle. He had
said that things should go on just as before; but when his mother shook
her head John's mind too made a great and sudden start, and he saw that
things could not be as they had been before. At sixteen one is almost a
man: the other lads were beginning to think of the time when they must
draw their numbers, when independence would begin: he, as an Englishman,
would not be called upon to draw any number; but he could not live upon
his mother any longer—he must get to his work and begin his life.
He had resolved to talk to her about this the day after the funeral,
when everything, he thought, would be over, the Englishmen gone back
again, and the ordinary conditions of existence resumed. It might be
hard upon her after all the excitement; but John felt that he would be
cruel only to be kind, and that it would be best to have it over. The
looks of the Englishmen did not altogether please him. He was French
enough to have a little hostile feeling to these two middle-aged, or
rather old gentlemen (as he thought), with their looks of exaggerated
gravity and trouble, who came into his mother's cottage as if they
disapproved of it highly, as if it were something they had a right to
interfere with. What right had they to interfere? They had, of course,
to do with the funeral, at which John, in a very curious jumble of
feeling, had to walk as chief mourner, not knowing whether he were more
gratified by the importance of his position, or overawed by the
melancholy, or anxious to have all the fuss over and everything settled
back into the old lines. But he was angry when both the Englishmen
accompanied him back, all being over, to his home. He did not want them
there again. He wanted to be rid of them, now that their business was
completed. And they talked to each other over his head, as it were, as
they walked along, amusing themselves by discourse and discussions of
what was to happen to a certain "he" with whom they seemed to have a
great deal to do. "He must be made a ward in Chancery," one said, "and
proper guardians appointed"; and "his education will have to be attended
to," said the other,—"of course he can have had none hitherto." "What
a chance for a lad like that!" John felt a little sorry for the boy,
whoever he was, whom they discussed like this. Madame Jeanne rose to
meet them as they came in, darkening the little house with their big,
black shadow. Everything was in solemn order to receive them, and she
herself dressed in black, looking as John had never seen her look
before. She was very pale, but had a kind of dignity about her in her
black dress. She bade them be seated as a princess might have done, and
then she drew John close to her and took his hand in hers.
"I understand," she said, her voice rather faint but firm, "that you
have come now to speak to me about my boy."
"There are a great many things to speak to you about, Janey," said Mr
Courthill, the man to whom the telegram had been sent. "You could not
expect that our departed friend should have shown you any consideration
after the way in which you treated him."
"I expect nothing," said Madame Jeanne, hurriedly; "I am quite willing
to allow that I deserve nothing from him."
"And he was not aware that you had a child."
"No; I did not," she said, drooping her head, "know myself—or else it
might have made a difference."
"I am glad to hear you say that—I am very glad to hear you say that:
all the same, when you did know, it was your duty to have communicated a
fact which was of so much importance, and which would, as you must have
known, have given him so much pleasure."
Madame Jeanne shivered a little, as John felt, but she made no reply.
"Is not this losing time?" said the other lawyer. "You will have
opportunities afterwards of reading lessons to Mrs Rothbury, Courthill.
She may have taken a foolish step—she certainly did—but we can't
change that now. She might have had a better provision had she acted
otherwise. Our part is to tell her what is the state of affairs now——"
"I am coming to that. I only want you to feel, Janey, that you have no
right to expect any consideration——"
"I expect nothing," she said—"nothing!" dropping John's hand to clasp
her own together. Then she turned to him again, and took it back in
hers. "The only thing that vexes me," she said, sadly, "is that I have
ruined the boy. I ought to have thought—Who was I, to keep the joy all
to myself? I acknowledge humbly that his father ought to have known."
"I am glad," said Mr Courthill, "to see you in such a proper frame of
"Mrs Rothbury," said the other, impatiently, "I don't see that my part
is to moralise. I must tell you without any more circumlocution that
your husband has died intestate. There is no will."
"There is no will?" She looked from one to another with the blank of
ignorance. What this meant for her or for her child she was without the
faintest suspicion. "Indeed," she repeated, earnestly, "I have no right
to anything. I never expected anything. I only hoped perhaps that, being
proved to have a son——"
"His next of kin," said the lawyer, "and only heir."
There was a great silence in the room—a poor little cottage room, white
wooden chairs and table; nothing that could be called a carpet on the
floor; roses waving in at the windows in the luxuriance of a Provençal
spring, but no other ornament. The boy's acute ears took in the words
without understanding them; the mother repeated them vaguely with a kind
"His heir! what do you mean? what do you mean?" she said.
"Janey, though you deserved no consideration, no generosity——"
She turned from this moralising voice to the stranger on the other side.
"What do you mean?" she said.
"You, of course, will take your lawful portion as the widow. We are
aware, Mrs Rothbury, that you have not, perhaps, fulfilled the duties of
a wife—but otherwise you have done your husband no wrong. There is
nothing that can be objected to in your conduct—and your son is his
father's natural and only heir. I have long wished him to make a will;
but he never would—guided, we may believe, by a higher instinct. It was
what he wished for before everything, a son who would be his heir."
Then Madame Jeanne, who had been so calm, hid her face in her hands. The
tears burst forth in a flood. "I have no right, no right to anything of
his. I have kept John from him," she cried. "How was I to know it was
the desire of his life?"
John caught the strange news at last with a sudden glow of illumination.
He stood in his clumsy peasant youthfulness, unable to say a word, or to
give any evidence of his excitement, gazing at the speaker with
"And, my boy," the lawyer continued, "you must understand your
responsibility, and give your mind to the training which will make you
fit for it; for you will be a very rich man."
An inarticulate sound escaped from the boy's throat. Oh, the sailor who
had never come home, who had left his son nothing but love and honour!
It was the anguish of the pang with which at last and for ever that
tender apparition floated away, which wrung that cry out of John's
"But, mind you, you deserved nothing from him," said the voice of the
other man, see-sawing with uplifted hand from his chair—the guardian
who had delivered John's mother to her fate.
"And I would rather have nothing," she cried. "I do not deny it. I did
not do my duty by him,—how can I take anything from him? And I can make
my own living, as I have done so long—if you will only think of the
"Mother!" said John, tremulous, with his eyes shining, "it appears we
cannot take our own way again. We are not the only people in the world.
I am worse off than you, because I have lost what I believed in—my
father: and even my mother in a way. But now I've seen him," he added,
with a shiver, "and I don't blame you. If you had only told me from the
"He was an excellent man of business—a very successful man—a father
you would have been proud of," Mr Courthill said.
Another shudder of emotion shook the boy for a moment. "Anyhow," he
said, "that's the truth at last." He set himself very square on his feet
and faced the two Englishmen with that curious sense of hostility to
them, as if it were they who had injured him; and yet an attitude which
was entirely British, though he was not aware of it. "And I'll stick to
it. I am not one for running away," said John.
This is not the usual way of accepting a great fortune. There was no
elation in his mind over an advance which was almost miraculous. The two
men stood, not knowing what to make of the boy in his curious mixed
nationality. To his own consciousness he had lost far more than he
gained: but how were these strangers to understand that?
This was how John Rothbury, not without a sharp pang, found out his true
name and his real position in life.